(I’m back in my Cthulhu mood, as you can probably tell by looking at my website. I’ve gotten to where I can switch themes on my site by changing a single line of code. I’m pretty proud of that.)
This past weekend I went to the Sacramento Writers’ Conference. Although I’ve been to writers’ workshops before (such as at Dragon*Con), I’ve never been to an event which was three days dedicated to writers and the craft of writing. I’m very glad I went; I learned a lot, I met a lot of great people, and got exposed to some techniques and craft ideas I would never have considered before.
It started on Friday morning when I faced a critique of Chapter One of The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster from Jean Jenkins, who teaches at the San Diego Writers’ Conference. To be honest, I’d been shivering in my boots, expecting the worst; instead, she quite liked the chapter. She pointed out some craft issues that I hadn’t considered before but which make perfect sense, and said that the entire chapter reminded her of the film Fargo. This was a comparison I hadn’t heard before, but it pleases me. I’m feeling much more inspired to continue with that novel now.
After that, lunch and the first keynote speaker, Raymond Obstfeld, who gave a speech entitled, "The Fourteen Commandments for Being a Successful Writer" (in his introduction he mentioned the importance of editing, and that if he’d had more time, there would have only been ten commandments). Raymond’s talk was inspiring and informative, and very funny. After that there was to be a free writing exercise led by Doug Rice. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do any writing, because Rice got a bit too excited about the importance of story openings. That was fine with most of us; Rice is a dynamic and engaging speaker, whose mannerisms made me think that Timothy Leary and some crazed mad scientist had gotten together and had some sort of love child. He emphasized the importance of reading for writers. What stuck with me most was his idea that reading is all about "breath", and that "writers breathe". "Faulkner," he says, "will teach you how to breathe. Virginia Woolfe will teach you how to breathe. Flannery O’Conner will teach you how to breathe." Reading slowly is important for writers, he said. He also said that women writers seem to have this breathing thing down to a fine art, and that what men write is "mostly bullshit".
My first workshop was after that; "The Contemporary Short Story I and II" with Peter Grandbois (who doesn’t seem to have an online presence). Grandbois started the workshop by playing some scenes from Mel Gibson’s film version of Hamlet, and Kenneth Branagh’s version of Othello, and spoke to us about techniques for conveying character yearnings and conflict through minimal language. We had two exercises; the one I particularly enjoyed was to convey a character’s yearning and primary conflict only through imagery and the character’s interaction with the imagery. I got all symbolic and wrote about a character killing a salmon swimming upstream as a symbol of that character’s defiance against his own destiny. I don’t know if it was terrifically effective, but Grandbois kept referring back to the image for the rest of the class.
Friday night featured readings by various poets and novelists. To be honest, I didn’t really care for any of them (apart from Obstfeld); the poets seemed pretentious and self-involved.
Saturday began with another free-writing exercise led by poet Bob Stanley (another writer who doesn’t seem to have an online presence). The exercises he presented were worthwhile, though I realized I am no longer used to writing long-hand. Writer’s cramp set in within a few minutes.
Saturday morning I was in a workshop entitled "Elements of Writing: Characters, Plot, Pacing, and Conflict", presented by Robin Burcell. Robin knows what she’s talking about, and has extensive experience in the publishing industry, but hasn’t forgotten her roots as a beginning writer. I disagreed with her on one very minor point during the workshop, her class very instructive and valuable, and chock full of good information and useful knowledge. I also got to have lunch with her on Saturday and on Sunday, and the information we got out of her during those lunches was just as valuable as the information she gave during her class. I was sorry that I wasn’t able to take her second class, which was on the Hero’s Journey, but I have friends who went and who took good notes, and she covered some of the important points during lunch.
Saturday afternoon I took a workshop called "Why the Book Publishing Industry is Evil and Unfair", presented by a woman who turned out to be the acquisitions editor for Writers’ Digest books. This talk was sobering and a bit disheartening, but the information she gave was solid and worthwhile.
More readings on Saturday night. These readings were much more enjoyable. We didn’t get to hear Robin Burcell, but we did get to hear poetry from Jeff Knorr and Bob Stanley, both of whom really came across as poets who truly enjoy working with the English language, instead of pretentious. Bob Stanley, in particular, was very enjoyable; his poem, "Walt Whitman Orders a Cheeseburger" (from which the title of this journal entry comes) was inspired and hilarious. Sturgeon’s Rule — that 90% of everything is crap — is an understatement when it comes to poetry, but both Knorr and Stanley made me remember that poetry is something that I do enjoy when it’s done very well. We also heard The Monster in the Mailbox, by T. E. Watson, whose Scottish accent made the already fun story even more enjoyable.
The next morning, Bob Stanley led another outstanding free writing exercise. Then I took a workshop entitled "Creating Characters that Walk off the Page", given by Karen Sandler. Sandler is a romance writer. I knew this going in, but what genre is more character driven than romance? The information she gave was good, and I came out of it with a deeper understanding of how characters work, and with some ideas for how to develop my lead characters in Solitude. I also really appreciated that she went out of her way to bring in examples from other genres outside of romance, which certainly helped quite a bit.
The keynote speaker on Sunday was Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who gave an excellent and moving talk entitled "The Japanese American Experience in Literature and the Immigrant Voice". In particular, she focused on how the internment camps during the Second World War shaped the Japanese American culture, and how that is expressed not only in her own writing, but in the writing of other Japanese American authors. After her speech, there were more readings: another two stories from T. E. Watson (who turned out to be a really fun guy to chat with as well), some excerpts from Grandbois’s novel Gravedigger, and a couple of others. At that point, I admit, I was starting to wind down, so I think I may have dozed off a bit.
While the workshops and exercises and classes were worthwhile, certainly the best part of the whole conference was the people I got to meet. In addition to the talented writers and speakers (one guy who impres
sed me the most was a fellow who plans on writing comic books, and who is awaiting the results of his bar exam so he can become a criminal prosecutor and go "take down NAMBLA"; in my mind, this guy is the kind of guy that superhero comics are written about, not the kind of guy who writes them), I also spent some time with a couple of other members of my local writers’ group, which was fun. Seeing people you know out of context can always be an experience.
Mostly, though, I was pleased to have gotten to meet and hang out with Renee Middleton-Solberg, It’s rare that you meet people with whom you seem to click so quickly and so thoroughly. I know that Jennifer enjoyed meeting her as well, and the three of us had dinner as a group on both Friday and Saturday nights. She’s a funny and intelligent person. She’s also a talented writer; I guarantee, you will be hearing from her in a few years. Even if all the workshops and speakers and exercises and readings had sucked, the people I met and spent time with was well worth the cost of the conference.
And now, I suppose, it’s time for me to get back to work.
Edited on 8/14 to add: Although the line, "Dill of our forefathers / Orange curd of the motherlands" comes from Bob Stanley, I wasn’t the first person to use that line as a title for a blog entry about the conference. Renee did that first. But the best ideas are always worth stealing.